An Unexpected Lesson on the Rights of Minors {Smart Summer Challenge - Week 2}

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If you missed my first Smart Summer Challenge post for this week, here's a little run down: This week's theme is Government. I decided to have my 13 year-old son look up the answers to some questions about American history that they just don't teach you in school. Well, we're still doing this and I'll post about it tomorrow.

Tonight's post is about an unexpected lesson my son learned earlier today about civil servants. I think it pertains to this week's theme very well.

The lesson: 
"Know the Law and Your Rights"

I'm going to have to go back to September 2009 to explain. (Hopefully, I can do it without writing a novel this time!) That's when a friend of my son's, I'll call him "S", was arrested for breaking & entering and vandalism. He was 12 years old at the time, almost 13, and hanging out with a couple of kids who were 15. One of these kids had the bright idea to break into one of the abandoned factories around here (there are LOTS - I live in Michigan, where they used to make a lot of cars.) They got in through a broken window and spent nearly three hours running around breaking stuff, burning stuff, painting nasty little phrases on walls... I'm sure you can just imagine the things three boys found to do in a place like that.

Well, these idiot kids didn't know it, but the entire place was outfitted with security cameras. Every second of their little adventure was caught on tape. S and the other two boys were questioned, taken to court, and punished. S got it the worst. The older boys had gotten together before getting caught and corroborated their stories, placing most of the blame on 12 year-old S. He was lucky enough to not had a run-in with the law beforehand and escaped any kind of kiddie jail. Instead, he was sentenced to a year and a half of community service. Every single weekend and day off of school (including all of last summer), he went to work for the city. He was "paid" minimum wage, which went to the building's owner or his insurance company. In addition, the kid was grounded until the community service was done with.

S and I have had many conversations about this incident. He was sorry for doing it the second he walked out of the factory. He knew it was wrong, he didn't think that an abandoned factory might actually have an owner or be worth anything. I'm not standing up for the kid and saying the punishment was too harsh or anything - he did something wrong and really did learn his lesson. Every time the subject comes up I can see it in his eyes - he's so very sorry for doing it.

At the end of the school year, S went to Texas to visit relatives and returned today. His parents had given him some of those firecrackers that just about every kid around here has from June 27th until they run out. I can't remember what their called - Black Cat? - they look like little birthday candles and emit a loud POP! There's a drought in Texas and he missed seeing fireworks, so they figured what the heck. (I know, some of you are thinking "What the hell would they give a kid fireworks for?!" but this really is common around here. Kids learn about fireworks at a very early age and, like it or not, 8-year-olds are walking around with firecrackers and lighters in their pockets. I'm leaving my opinion out of it, but just so you know, I just started letting my oldest shoot off bottle rockets - under adult supervision - this year.)

So, my son, S, and another of their friends went into the empty lot of dirt (it's about 1/2 acre) and my kid watched (I know because I watched him!) while his friends put firecrackers into pop cans, under tin cans, into plastic bags - just trying out every possible piece of trash they found. [Hey, don't knock it - it's experimentation! They were learning something. I'm serious!] Now, at this time, I could hear the same type of firecrackers sporadically going off all around the neighborhood. A few minutes into their fun, TWO police cars roll up. OK, now I'm heading out the door!

As I'm walking to the scene of the "crime" and still hearing fireworks going off all around me, my son and his one friend are walking toward me. S, on the other hand, is pushed over the hood of the car (the kid is 14 and a skinny little thing, like my son.) All I can think is This is bullshit! There's no reason for two grown men to have a kid who is doing the same thing that most boys his age are doing bent over a police car (with lights and sirens going), handcuffed, the contents of his backpack dumped onto the ground, and one officer literally yelling into his ear, "We know who you are! We have you on video from a couple of years ago! You're going downtown, boy!" Uh, WHAT?!

I tell my son and his friend to follow me - we're going to go see what the problem is and I want them around to tell me what happened. Being the mom that I am (actually all my son's friends except S are afraid of me because I'll do something like what you're about to read!), I stomp right up to the cops.

"Ma'am, you need to leave the scene, we're arresting a threat to the community."  

Oh, really? Your "threat" is bawling.

"Ma'am, this is really none of your business. We're going to have to ask you to return to your home before things get out of hand."  

Looks like things are very out of hand right now. How about telling me why this child is handcuffed and being held on your hood by his hair? (OK, not so eloquent, huh? But I'm so pissed I'm shaking.) You had better have a damn good reason for searching him, too. I don't see his parents anywhere.

"Lady, you're going to have to leave right now, or we'll arrest you for obstructing justice."

Hmm... I think you need to re-read the laws that you are supposed to be upholding. First, you're searching a minor without his or his parents' consent and he hasn't threatened anyone. Next, I saw how rough you were with this child and I believe that, since he did not threaten you, that is considered child abuse. Finally, he's allowed to have those fireworks - he's 14 and that the legal age for them.What 'justice' are you speaking of? (Yeah, not word-for-word. This sounds much better than what came out of my mouth - there were a bunch of "um's" and "errrr's". I just got really nervous because I've NEVER been arrested or even given a ticket before! My husband would have the kids eating ice cream for breakfast, lunch, & dinner!)

<Insert Lots of Hemming and Hawing HERE (the cops, not me!)>

To make a very long story just a teensy bit shorter:

They put S into my custody. Ha! Sounds all official and everything, but they can't do that! They don't know me - didn't even ask my name. Why not pick up some kid walking down the street and put him into the custody of some guy walking down the street? Would you feel comfortable with that if S were your kid? They did this official-sounding thing because they realized that just acting authoritative and sounding official doesn't always work when a citizen knows the law. I've taken more classes on students' and minors' rights in the past year for a degree in education that I know what's what (most of the time!)

So, after a long talk with all three of the boys about:

1) How I think it's wrong that they repeatedly pick on S due to one incident (they've done this to him about 6-7 times since the "incident" and he says he's not been doing anything wrong - I believe him and I'm a pretty good lie detector), and that this is the best way to teach someone to hate the authorities rather than respect them. In fact, there will sadly probably come a time when S decides that he may as well do all of the things that he's suspected of doing.

2) It is important to know your rights - inside and out.

3) Even if you're under 18, it doesn't mean that you do not have rights. In fact, many times, you have more rights!

We decided to go downtown yesterday to visit City Hall, where the public law library is housed. The librarian wouldn't let us in! She said that it was only for lawyers and kids weren't allowed anyway. Yeah, used my mom look and voice and told her the definition of "public library" then threatened to find her boss. We were in like flint, ya know?! Now, I know nothing about looking up laws, so we just browsed. Each of the kids found something of interest to them over and over. I kept hearing, "Hey, guess what - Mr. Brown was wrong when he said it was against the law to..." And, "Come here and look at this one! You can't marry your ex-step-mom in Michigan! ... Ew! Who'd want to do THAT?!" They re-shelved the books properly and kept their talking to a whisper. They had fun and learned some stuff. They found out that they can reserve books from any public library in our state, written just for kids their age about how the law pertains to them, and have them delivered to our local library. And, I think that, with a little guidance, these guys will learn how to stand up for their rights without being cocky about it (which can cause more trouble than it's worth!)

I want my kids to grow up respecting the law and those who uphold it and try to ensure that justice is served. It makes me angry that there are still people out there, in uniform, that feel that their badge and gun means that they can make up the law as they go along. I've heard more than one story about similar incidents occurring, where an authoritative tone of voice and self-assurance has meant more than the actual law around here. I haven't seen it close up until a couple of days ago. Hopefully, I can keep my son and his friends out of trouble by teaching them right from wrong and how to endure they understand their own rights. I worry about S and whether he's already decided against being "good".

What's the Smart Summer Challenge? Check it out!

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Or, read my introductory post about it HERE.

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